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Car love affair gets new look in selfie generation

Alison Bowen
Chicago Tribune

When her 2000 Subaru Outback sold quickly on Craigslist, Caroline Bean never got to say goodbye. So she logged onto Facebook, where a post that began, “It’s been seven hours and 12 long years … ” served as a virtual memorial.

Friends weighed in, sharing memories of the Subaru — fun trips to the beach, its impressive cup holders. And she wrote about everything she and the car had been through.

“We brought our babe home from the hospital in this car,” she said.

Bean, 35, who works in social media marketing in Philadelphia, is not alone in virtual vehicle eulogizing. Selling, or buying, a car is such a life event that many post an accompanying photo, be it a glamour shot of the car or a selfie.

Our autos hold a lot of our lives. They transport our children. They hold our belongings during a move. They whisk us to moments both happy and harrowing.

So perhaps it’s not too surprising that when we buy or sell them, we leave a piece online with a memory.

Amy Best, a Virginia sociologist, said cars mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Freedom. Success. Attachment. “In some ways their life unfolding plays out in and around the car,” she said. “We do form deep attachments to our car.”

Plus, she said, purchasing a car is an achievement. “We associate cars with major life-course milestones,” Best said. “These are often the first major purchase people make.”

And other milestones — job, children — aren’t such a given; not everyone buys a home, marries, has kids.

The effort that goes into buying a car, from comparing models to hours at a dealership to finalize a purchase, is an investment that “makes it ripe for a more meaningful attachment,” Best said.

Car dealerships are starting to capitalize on the trend of posting the car equivalents of birth and death announcements. A New Jersey Honda dealership asked shoppers to take a selfie with a Honda Civic for a chance to win a new one; on Instagram, #lovemysubaru has more than 3,000 posts, with car owners bubbling, “I got a car!!!” Under the same hashtag, a local dealership in Australia posted a photo of a couple with a Subaru adorned with a bright red bow.

Posing with a car has always been a popular way of noting something that’s a status symbol and point of pride.

Historically, cars have connected to us emotionally, whether through a family hobby or a saved-up-for purchase. So many photos on a fridge might have included a child in the seat of a pickup, or a parent and child smiling together with a new-car backdrop.

The ability to purchase a car means mobility, both in travel and social status. For people who live in urban areas and might not easily afford a car, they symbolize success. Also, cars are a way to bond, as Best found in her book “Fast Cars, Cool Rides: The Accelerating World of Youth and Their Cars,” where getting a license meant freedom and cruising could create your community.

And in a society that’s very consumer-focused, she added, “Cars are really bundled up with nostalgia and longing.”

But with the digital world, we’re able to move the refrigerator-door showcase online, where others can chime in with comments or appreciation. Plus, when you’ve spent a lot of time either driving in — or working on — a car, what better way to show off the final result than to a hum of likes and clicks?

Organizers at the Chicago Auto Show said they noticed so many people taking selfies that they created a social media challenge, asking fans to take a selfie with their dream car. Ford also had a selfie station, added Chicago Automobile Trade Association spokeswoman Jennifer Morand, where fans could take shots with a bright blue background.

A 2013 study from AutoTrader.com revealed that consumers assign personalities to their cars that can mirror relationships with people. More than 70 percent said they felt very or somewhat attached to their car, 36 percent called their vehicle an “old friend,” and a quarter said they felt sad thinking about parting ways.

But should that day come, more than a third reported wanting their car to “go to a good home,” and a majority planned a road-trip goodbye together.

After buying her Subaru from her dad when she had just graduated college, Bean drove it through some of life’s major milestones, from her first job in her early 20s in Baltimore to a relocation to Philadelphia, then off to Delaware to meet her future in-laws.

For her wedding, she and her husband “packed it to the gills with beer and all the wedding stuff.”

“We drove our baby home from the hospital in it,” she added. “So it definitely was there and keeping us safe throughout all of these life moments, which I didn’t even really think about until after it was sold.”

When they decided to downsize to one car the Subaru sold quickly, Bean noted, to a family that just had their second baby.

“It was going on to someone else,” she said, “who was living another milestone in their life.”

This sounds familiar to Alexis Tahara. When the 25-year-old marketing coordinator bought her car, a 2008 Honda Fit Sport, on Craigslist, she cataloged the events on social media.

At the same time, she was selling her old car, a 2000 Volvo S80 (nicknamed “Hans”). It’d been with her through college, back and forth on road trips home to Pennsylvania and packed with things for her move to Nashville, Tenn. “That was my first car,” she said. “When I sold it, it was my last moments with the car.”

So in the Target parking lot, her father snapped a photo.